Sunday, June 28, 2015

My own mess: my favorite self-help books

My new boss at the library is awesome. During our weekly staff training, she played this video about vulnerability from Brené Brown's viral TED Talk:

The video left me wanting more, as all good stories do. It inspired me to check out Brown's book, Daring Greatly. I'm just at the introduction, and I've already found a part that resonates with me. I had to stop and write it down. Oh, this is good:

"Social work is all about leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way. In a word, messy." --Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

When I first started going to Johnson County Community College in 1989, my plan was to transfer to KU and major in Social Welfare so I could get a job working with sexually abused children. I ended up dropping out and working at the library, later going back to get my AA degree so I could become a paraprofessional librarian.

I ditched my plan to become a social worker for a few reasons. I needed to get a job to pay my rent and buy groceries and put gas in my car, and I couldn't figure out how to do those things and go to school at the same time. I also needed time to get my own shit together before I could attempt to help other people get their shit together. My teens and early twenties were the most emotionally unstable parts of my life. It was too draining to spend my days pretending to know how to help others when I spent my nights sobbing in bed at home.

I also knew, deep down, that I'd be a terrible social worker. I'm too passionate and hot-tempered. Our social welfare agencies are chronically underfunded and too wrapped up in bureaucratic bullshit to be able to fully help people change their lives for the better. There's no way I could work in such a broken system. Seeing hurt people hurts me. I'm sure I'd freak out some day and try to "rescue" as many kids as I could, holding them hostage at my house until I realized I'd have to feed them. Then I wouldn't have a clue what to do. I'm about as far from a domestic goddess as you can get and my financial planning skills are about as good as you'd expect from a social worker type. We'd run out of boxed macaroni and cheese and canned peas and I'd have to call the agency I'd kidnapped the kids from for assistance.

I'd boss the parents around and try to tell them what to do with their lives instead of sitting back patiently and letting them figure it out for themselves. I can barely stand to listen to my friends complain about their lives without wanting to slap them, shake them, and scream at them for not listening to my advice the last time we talked. I'd be a terrible social worker.

I went to work at the library because I believe in the healing power of books and ideas. So many books have changed my life that I feel compelled to share my discoveries. I want to help other people find books that can change their lives for the better too.

As a librarian, I get to recommend books that enrich people's lives. But I'm not a social worker. I'm not actively involved in the daily lives of the people I help. I have no idea if they actually read the books I recommend. I have no proof that the books I recommend change anyone's attitudes and behaviors. I have no guarantee that the ideas I'm slinging will fix anyone's problems. And that's good. For an emotionally damaged control freak like me, it's good that my job is not to fix other people. If I were busy all day trying to fix other people, I'd have no time to work on myself, the one person who needs my attention the most. If I've learned anything from the many books I've read over the years it's that the only person's behavior I can control is my own.

By being a librarian instead of a social worker I get to step out of other people's messes, other people's crazy, and the dysfunction of other people's daily lives. My job is to provide resources for people who wish to learn how to empower themselves. The best way I know how to test those resources is to try them out myself.

Here are a few of my favorite "self-help" books. I expect to add a Brené  Brown book to it in a bit. I couldn't even get past the introduction without being inspired to write this blog post.


The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner

Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason by Alfie Kohn

Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth Behind Your Weight by Linda Bacon

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Living with Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults by by Michael M. Piechowski and Susan Daniels


The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler